After formal greetings, Artemis took the floor. She informed the council that most of what they were to see and hear that day must remain secret. If anyone objected they were free to leave, but staying would be taken as their sacred vow of silence. No one left.
Artemis then introduced Celesta and said the two of them had called the meeting to inform the council of the current state of the nation, and the Gods interference with it's affairs. To start with, Aries had been scheming to gain dominion over the Amazon nation for over two full cycles. His initial plan involved removing the queen and replacing her with his puppet, Velasca. The return of Gabrielle had foiled that plan. Neither had Aries foreseen Xena's return from Tartarus. Hades and Celesta had sustained her spirit long enough for her to be given the life restoring ambrosia. One of the council asked why they had a special interest in Xena. Celesta answered "Hades is her father. While she is unaware of that fact, it has great importance in light of recent events."
Artemis continued "There are many Amazons with some divine ancestry. Several of the male gods, Zeus and Aries in particular, routinely place themselves in the paths of your raiding parties. We learned recently that Velasca, in addition to being Aries puppet, is his daughter, immortal, and has long known it. Against her challenge, Queen Melosa never had a chance." A angry murmur went thru the assembly, "then it was murder" someone was heard to say. Artemis replied "It was murder, but once Queen Melosa accepted the Royal challenge, we were powerless to stop it. We did arrange for Gabrielle to be in position to take the mask from her." In response to a question asking for details, Celesta spoke. "The part of that story you know is complicated enough without adding detail. Suffice it to say that no less than five Gods, Goddesses and associates were involved."
Once the murmers quieted, Artemis spoke again. "There are two others whose divine ancestry is relevant. Queen Gabrielle was the Daughter of Bacchus. It was thru her scrolls, and the death experiences of both the warrior Tanya and Queen Ephiny, we were able to get that information." She hesitated, casting a glance at her fellow goddess, "The other is Queen Ephiny." There was silence, then Eponin asked "Since you named the fathers of the others, may we know to which god she is related?" As Artemis began to speak, Eponin and others, noticed a pained expression on Celesta's face. Artemis said "The fact of her divine ancestry is relevant, the names of her parents are not." Celesta put her hand on Artemis's arm, "It's okay, she knows now." A badly shaken Eponin found herself choking on the goddesses words. "Parents, that means... It can't be, can it?"
All eyes turned to the two goddesses. Celesta closed her eyes, opening them a moment later she began to speak. "What I will tell you is known only to Ephiny, and must not leave this room. Ephiny is my daughter. She was born a full goddess, stripped of her birthright and adopted as a mortal by the warrior Erisa, who some of you knew." She went on to tell the story of Ephiny's birth and the decrees of Zeus. She told them how she had tried to be a part of her daughters life. Never before had any of them seen a goddess cry. Many of them cried with her.
At length Celesta composed herself. "Ephiny has learned of this only since her illness" She told them how during the time she lay unconscious in the village, Ephiny had learned of her heritage in Tartarus. She made a request, "For many cycles we visited you as the guests of Erisa. I came as an Amazon, appearing and acting no differently than any of you. I seek your leave to do so again, that I may see my daughter during her illness." Niobe asked "could you give us a moment please," then turned to the rest of the council. "Old friends of her mother? Visiting healers? Priestesses? How do we want to do it?"
After a few moments discussion, Niobe turned back to the goddess. Bowing deeply she said, "How could we deny such a request. We ask only that you inform us as to your arrival, and any special needs you may have." Celesta asked "Thank you, but what do you mean by special needs?" Niobe quietly answered "help protecting your identity and privacy." Celesta replied, "I understand, Erisa always took care of that. We can discuss the details later."
Artemis suggested they return to the business at hand; Aries plot to take over the nation. The mood immediately turned grim. "The reason the divine parentage of these women is important," she told them "is that by the rules of Olympus, no god may kill another." Seeing their puzzled expressions she explained. "The rule also covers a full god killing a demigod not their own offspring. These women had to be removed for Aries to gain control, and he couldn't touch them. Velasca had been his key. First Queen Gabrielle and Xena had to be separated, then destroyed. Aries set forth events taking them to China and Britannia, hoping to accomplish those goals." They had read those stories in the scrolls. "Aries had offered Gabrielle's blood innocence to Dahok as a sacrifice. The birth of her daughter, Hope, was a bonus for him. Aries and Dahok turned events at the centaur village last cycle to result in the death of Xena's son, hoping to further drive a wedge between them. The death of Gabrielle's daughter Hope complicated things."
Celesta looked over the women. Some were sitting in shocked disbelief. Others were on the verge of tears. She thought *They need to know,* Standing up she took over the narration from Artemis. "Following the death of her son, Aries worked on Xena's grief for a quarter moon, until she was blinded to all reason, and sought only revenge. He then placed her in proximity of this village. At the time her invasion took place, Xena was totally under Aries control. Both Queen Gabrielle and Ephiny were targeted by him for death. Again, Xena had no conscious control over her actions. He had hoped the deaths of queen and regent would result in a bloody battle for succession, ultimately tearing the nation apart. Another of his goals was to make certain Xena would have no where to run except to him. No one to help her search for redemption. Her death would not have saddened him."
Pausing for a moment to guage their reaction, Artemis found that she had their undivided attention. "Thru the intercession of Xena's son and Callisto, Aries was forced to help Xena and Gabrielle. They were taken to a special part of the underworld, where they were forced to confront and resolve some of their differences. That done they were returned to the living, far enough from this village that your search parties would find no trace of them. All of their belongings, including Xena's horse, were returned to them "
Krystina nodded thoughtfully, remembering an earlier exchange with Artemis. "My lady" she had asked, "Our late queen's scrolls tell of visiting a place called Illusia that I have never heard of. Can you tell me, does such a place exist?" The goddess had smiled, "Illusia, while unknown to most mortals, is indeed real. It was designed to give deserving dead a second chance. Before you ask, yes, they both died under the cliffs. Following her kidnapping, your late queen killed Xena in hand to hand combat, using a desperate maneuver that cost her her own life."
Finally Artemis asked, "Do you have any questions so far." Everyone jumped up as though in a school house. She extended her hands, motioning them to be seated saying, "One at a time, Eponin you first."
Eponin asked, "After Xena's arrest, we realized that their belongings had to have disappeared thru actions of a God. Initially there was great distrust, and two warriors were unjustly punished in thier disappearance. Was that also part of Aries plan?"
Artemis answered, "Not at first. Originally Xena and Gabrielle were to have been sent back here. Callisto, in a moment of humanity, sought to give them time to heal. Aries agreed, and knowing he could not enter the village undetected, sent Callisto to retrieve their belongings. Later she transported them to where Xena and Gabrielle washed ashore."
Eponin shook her head, "I'm sorry, but I still don't undertand. The two wariors that were unfairly punished, were they Aries deliberate victims, or merely in the wrong place at the wrong time?" The goddess replied patiently "Aries had hoped that Ephiny would be killed during Xena's attack. When that failed, Callisto's well intentioned suggestion showed him another path to Ephiny's destruction. He used it to build the first doubts about her sanity. He hoped to alienate her from her closest friends, and timed the unexplainable disappearance of these things to cast suspicion on one of them. His idea came far closer to working than he realized. "
Celesta added, "Tanya is sincere in her beliefs, but they are not quite accurate. You were correct in your initial assumption. Ephiny's discovery of this belief was the final push that sent her over the edge. The Gods do take into account the judgements of man, and their reasons for them. We do, however, have more information than any mortal. During final judgement, we look at a persons whole life, not just some anomaly at the end of it. Lyssa was judged favorably upon her death, and sent directly to the Forests of Eternity."
"Your efforts on behalf of Lyssa's soul's were not in vain. I can assure you, that they were looked upon with favor by the gods. Because of them, the injustices committed against the warrior Kira have also been corrected. The formal clearing of their names, and the grant of final honors to Lyssa, will help ease the suffering of her widow Tanya, and Ephiny."
Solari stood up and asked, "When did Ephiny's illness actually start?" Celesta spoke with venom, "En route to Athens, she and her husband were steered into a war zone by yet another goddess. I could not protect both of them, but I was able to conceal her presence from Mitoan searchers, who actually walked on top of her. Ephiny was fated to die in childbirth, but we sent Xena and Gabrielle to prevent this. Once Ephiny was safely in Xena's charge, I took revenge on her husbands murderers, personally delivering each of them to Tartarus. Enraged, this other goddess then caused the Furies to curse her with madness. Her return to this village, and the birth of her son helped slow it's course."
Solari followed up, "May we know which goddess cursed her?" "You may not, she has now withdrawn her curse and provided many of the keys we needed to piece this information together. Her price for lifting the curse, and her pledge on the River Styx to avoid any further interference in Ephiny's mortal life, was our agrement to keep her identity secret from mortals. Should she break this vow, the gods will deal with her severely." Solari persisted, "If she unknowingly asks this goddess for a favor?" "It is highly unlikely she would, but if so it would be channeled either to Artemis or myself."
Eponin then asked, "What will happen to her now?" Celesta looked at her sadly, "The curse was withdrawn, but it's lingering effects are quite real. Innocents were injured and died as a result of her actions while under it's influence. Though her mind was violated, she feels, and bears, tremendous guilt for her actions. Her attempt at death was indeed an attempt to atone. She will have lingering self doubts for a long time. She will need the support of the priestess, her family and friends to work thru them. Part of this will need to be making peace with you, her lover. Another will be to make peace with her faith, as you've already discussed with the priestess here. She may make a far better queen when these are settled, but it will be quite some time before she is able to resume the mask."
Eponin asked, "Will she recover?" Celesta replied tearfully, "Her disease is real, and it's outcome known only to the fates. You have my word as her mother, I will if necessary release her from it, before I would allow her to become an object of public ridicule and abuse." Eponin broke into tears.
Artemis turned to her fellow goddess, "I think these people could use a break." She waved a hand at her altar. Food and drink appeared on it's polished marble surface. "Ladies, please refresh yourselves." Niobe, filling a plate, quietly asked "How much more can there be" Artemis answered "a great deal, and unfortunately it only gets worse." ******************************************************************
Elsewhere in the village a great deal of speculation was going on. Many had seen the entire council go to the temple that morning, none had returned. The temple itself was closed and guarded. Xena and Delia were having a quiet day in the hospice, when just before the noon meal all Tartarus broke loose. First a bowyer was brought in. She had been testing a new bow when the lower limb snapped and embedded itself in her upper thigh. A warrior was brought in after being thrown from a horse. Her skull was fractured and neck broken, there was nothing they could do. Numerous minor injuries began showing up, Kayla, there to learn the basics of healing, was kept busy cleaning wounds and fetching supplies.
A series of bird calls told them the patrol was bringing in a women, found half dead near the border. "Just what we need" said Xena.
The Amazon elders talked during their break, Ephiny's story had shaken them, as much as the plot unfolding against their nation. They wondered. How much worse could it get? What could they do against the God of War, should that become necessary? In whose hands really were their fates at this point? The answers were soon to come, as Artemis called the group back from their break.
"Thus far" she said "I have taken you thru the events surrounding Xena's last visit to the village. Let us jump ahead to Queen Gabrielle's fate and the reasons for her placement in Tartarus." A generalized groan went up at the very thought.
"Queen Gabrielle is Bacchus's daughter. He filed a petition with Zeus, claiming paternal privilege, and placing a hold on her soul. In doing so, he overrode my claim of her as chosen, and her right as an Amazon to enter the Forests of Eternity. For this reason, I was not told of her judgement until I confronted Zeus with this knowledge. Bacchus also filed petitions against her for attempted murder of himself, impiety regarding the desecration of his temple and numerous other charges, all stemming from events of which you are aware. Unfortunately he wasn't the only one." Several of the council shook their heads in disbelief.
"Aries filed a petition against her for alienating the affections of his chosen, Xena, citing as well her total contempt for himself. He also filed impiety charges against her, on behalf of Callisto and Velasca, for her part in trapping them in lava. Not content to let it end there, he further charged her with blasphemy, and impiety against the entire Olympian Pantheon. Among the specifications, he accused her of abandoning the Olympian Gods, to become Dahok's priestess and chosen. He accused her of offering blood sacrifices to this demon, the murder of priestesses, and the destruction of temples."
Eponin stood up shakilly. Her deep olive complexion had paled almost to the color of ash. She wasn't the only one. "Respects my lady, but the Gabrielle we knew was such a gentle soul, kind, caring, a peacemaker. How could anyone believe these things about her?" Several others voiced their agreement.
Artemis looked at her sympathetically. "Eponin, I suggest you sit down, before you fall down. I know this is hard to believe, it was for me as well. It's important for you to know the depth of the conspiracy against her. It will help explain other things as we go along." Waiting for Eponin to resume her seat, Artemis said, "There's more, and it gets a lot worse. Aries was able to convince Zeus of her guilt, because his carefully built web of lies is based on a few, tiny but easilly verifiable, grains of truth."
Celesta took over, "What Aries didn't tell Zeus was that the temples were Dahok's. That the claim of chosen could more correctly be chosen victim. She was raped by this demon, and in this way was chosen, as the vessel to bring his evil spawn into the world. The two innocent children she "murdered" were in both instances her own daughter Hope, Dahok's representative on earth. Aries even tried to have her own death treated as a sacrifice to this evil entity. It was rather a testament to her love for Xena, who we will discuss shortly. Naturally he left out any mention of his own involvement in these events. Fortunately Zeus rejected the final petition against her, and in his mercy ordered her confinement in Tartarus."
Celesta's last statement had shaken everyone in the room. More than one wondered, *how could sending someone to Tartarus, possibly be considered an act of mercy?* Krystina asked if Celesta would explain. The two goddesses looked at each other exchanging thoughts.
Finally Celesta spoke. "Most mortals do not know this, but there is a place used by several pantheons, including our own, as an eternal dumping ground for the very worst of the worst. Called Hell, it is a place of eternal torture, with no hope of escape or redemption. Fewer than one in ten thousand wind up there, but once there, a soul is beyond the reach of their native pantheon and lost forever."
Celesta hesitated for few moments, casting a cool gaze around the room, stopping at each face and wondering how they would take the rest of the bad news. Finally she spoke again. "When Artemis said, Zeus was merciful, she meant exactly that. The charges against Queen Gabrielle were serious enough, that Zeus first ordered her sent there."
The reaction of the council was one of absolute horror. Most were staggered at the revelation, two became violently ill. The question in every mind, if not on every set of lips was, "Why?" Finally able to use her voice, Eponin asked shakilly, "How in the name of all that's holy, could anyone possibly hate her so much, as to wish that on her?"
Krystina fell to her knees, "My lady, please tell us that you are testing our faith, anything, but please tell us that this isn't true." Artemis extended a hand to her with a mixture of love and sadness, "Krystina, ever my devoted servant, please believe me when I say, I wish I could."
Celesta added, "Were we not certain of your faith, we would not have told you these things, and sadly all of them are true. Had Gabrielle been consigned to this Hell, it would have been my sad duty to conduct her there. When called to do so, I knew that something was terribly wrong. Queen Gabrielle once saved my life, and I simply could not believe the charges against her. When I spoke to Zeus of this, he rejected the petition and cancelled the order."
Artemis spoke softly, "There was more to it than that, and much has happened since. Right then, keeping her within the realm of our own pantheon, was the best that could be done for her. The depth of this evil shocked even us. We will continue to do everything in our power to improve her situation, and have made some progress in these regards."
Solari asked several questions in rapid order, "How much of this does she know? Is there any way we can help her? And again, why, how could this happen?" Artemis took the questions, "In order, she knows very little of this, she does not know for example that she was first destined for Hell. Nor does she know the claims of Baccus against her, or their basis. The reasons behind this travesty of justice are complex and simple, but upon her case rests the survival of the Amazon Nation, and indeed the fate of the entire Olympian Pantheon.
We've already told you of Aries plot to take control of the Amazon nation. He plans to sacrifice it en mass to Dahok. His ultimate goal is to put Dahok on the Olympian throne. Queen Gabrielle stood in their way, and so had to be eliminated. The damning charges against her were intended to take her out of our reach. More specifically, to make her unavailable as a witness against the conspirators. We are still trying to determine the depth of this conspiracy, and to obtain the proofs against the conspirators " She looked pointedly at Krystina. "At least twice before, Amazon tribes were unwittingly sacrificed to the cause of evil. It shall not happen here." The priestess closed her eyes and her features became a mask of pain.
Many of the council jumped from their seats at this last. There were angry shouts and clenched fists. The two goddesses let this continue for several minutes. Finally Artemis raised her hands to restore order. "There is much that we can do to prevent this, but first, I must tell you the rest of the story."
Someone shouted "We're supposed to keep this secret?" Celesta spoke, "Yes. Why will be explained to you shortly. Please take seats so that we may continue." The women reluctantly did so. She continued, "Some of this we had long suspected, but until recently we were unable to obtain proof. What proof we now have has come in ways that, for various reasons, we cannot explain. The depth of the plot surprised all of Olympus. It involves far more than the Amazon Nation, though you will likely have a critical role in stopping it."
Eponin asked "Now that the plot has been exposed, what happens to Queen Gabrielle. Does she stay in Tartarus?" Artemis answered carefully, "Zeus has dismissed most of Aries petitions against her. Bacchus's claims remain a problem and Zeus has granted a council to consider them. Ephiny's case has become a key element here." Eponin waited then asked, "Would you please explain that?"
Celesta took the question, "Bacchus has shown no interest in Gabrielle since her birth, indeed this is the case with most fathered by the gods. Hercules is a notable exception, as it turns out is Xena. At Hades request, Artemis led Gabrielle to her, that her influence might help her change her evil ways. He helped her meet others as well who had similar influences. As a traveling nobleman, he stayed at her mothers inn often enough to get to know her as a child. He helped provide for her and her widowed mother. Our own attempts to be a part of Ephiny's life you know. More than this I am not at liberty to say."
Artemis added "What Celesta is getting at, is that since Bacchus's only interest in Gabrielle prior to her death was a few moments of pleasure, he should forfeit any parental rights to control her destiny. There is some resistance to this among the gods, but using these three cases, Hercules, Ephiny and Xena, we hope to make our case. As we all know, as any woman knows, there is more to being a parent than a simple act of reproductive lust." There were loud shouts of agreement.
She continued, "With these petitions invalidated, mine for her rejudgement would come into play. I have asked for her release from Tartarus, with a full pardon from the council. While she is certainly entitled to entrance into the Forests, whether she would be sent there or the Elysian Fields I do not know. Considering her present circumstances, I assume she would be happy with either." Solari politely asked, "Will it be possible for us to know the decision of the council." Artemis answered "Yes. Unfortunately it cannot be held for at least another moon or so. It seems your Queen got herself into some trouble and is being punished for it. The council will not meet until this has been completed."
Celesta said "The underworld is a kingdom, of which Tartarus is a part. It has laws like any other, and penalties for those who break them. Anyone consigned there has an assigned role, punishment or whatever. It can change with the conduct and contrition of the person. Gabrielle broke the rules, so she like any other must pay the penalty. Hades has asked me not to discuss the specifics of the matter."
Artemis said "That brings us to the subject of Xena. Suppose we take another break first." There were no objections.
When the break was over, and the women had taken their seats, the Goddesses began again. Artemis spoke first, "Xena is a mystery to all of you, indeed even to herself. You've already heard how Aries has used her. She has been trapped in a web of evil since her 15th summer. First she was brutally and repeatedly violated by mercenaries in the employ of a warlord. Grief over this, and her brothers death, led her to seek revenge. Aries began his campaign of control over her life at that time. Though many have tried to help her break it, he has twisted her will, shaping events to push each of them out of her life. Now he seeks to destroy her, since she has the power to destroy both him and the darkness he has allied with. Since Queen Gabrielle's death, he has been under orders from Dahok to kill her. He has kept a foot in both the Olympian camp, and that of Dahok, playing both sides against each other.
I've told you of the rules against Gods killing each other or the offspring of other Gods. Because of this, he couldn't take direct action against her, without bringing the wrath of Olympus down upon himself. He sent her here, with the intent that you execute her for her assault on Queen Gabrielle and this village. To further his evil designs, he prevented messages from getting to you, from either Queen Gabrielle before her death, or Xena afterwards. Messengers have been killed, or otherwise prevented from delivering them. Those who could shed light on these deaths have also been eliminated. His minions were so thorough that no outsider, not present at the time of Queen Gabrielle's death, is as yet aware of it." A murmur went thru the group. Artemis held up her hand for silence. "When I recently discovered this, I immediately filed yet another petition with Zeus and Hades. While I have little hope it will be granted, I have asked for the restoration of her mortal life." Pandemonium broke out.
Artemis pleaded with the women, "please, there is a great deal yet to cover." After several minutes, order returned to the temple."I understand your excitement but please let me finish." The women regained some semblance of decorum. "Whether or not she returns to life, she has already spent a full turn of seasons in Tartarus. None of you can possibly imagine what that would be like, and she will have been changed by the experience. If that petition is granted, she will need a great deal of emotional support in readjusting to life. She may no longer wish to remain queen. Depending on the fate of Xena, she may or may not wish to remain in the village. I have some ideas that may help her readjust to mortal life. Should that be allowed, we can discuss them at the time of her transition. I will, none the less, keep you informed of any major developments in her case."
"There are several critical matters to consider when you decide Xena's fate, and it is time for you to do so. Xena is specifically accused of assault on the Amazon queen and this village. There were no deaths directly resulting from her attack, though several deaths have occurred in it's wake. The assault itself was fueled by grief, and under the direct control of Aries, as we described earlier. Her soul, however, is tormented by her actions.
Eponin stood up, "My lady, her assault on the queen is treason. Her assault on Ephiny as regent would be as well. Though, as you point out, she killed no one, her attack injured many. A minor crime, perhaps, in light of the rest of it, but she even stole a horse making her get away. Half of the village saw these things happen. So with all due respect, if we can't discuss what you're telling us, how do we, as I believe you are suggesting, explain letting her off?"
Celesta added, " Perhaps you should turn that around and ask, how could she explain it to herself. What do you suggest?" Eponin answered, "Her work in saving both Tanya and Ephiny earned her a pardon?" "She would accept that, except for her own past which tells her she doesn't deserve it." Niobe stood up, looking nervously at the goddesses, "Xena has said many times that she is not an Amazon, so it wouldn't be treason." Several of the women nodded their agreement. "However, that leaves her in the equally unenviable position of an invader, and attempted assasin." Celesta hoping to guide their discussion asked, "Treason and assasination are both hanging offenses, are they not?"
Solari added, "They are, but as an Amazon accused of treason she has the right to a trial, as an invader she doesn't." Eponin stepped in, "Niobe, is there anything in Amazon law says we can't give her one anyway? She has been a friend of the nation for years, and having been accepted as queen's champion should give her some rights." A murmer went up. "There's nothing in law that says we can't. As far as being queen's champion giving her some rights - it should. Either way she's charged with a hanging offense, but as an Amazon it would be a lot easier to show her mercy."
Solari looked over the group, "It would seem then, that the first, and maybe the most critical question, regards her status within the nation." Addressing the goddesses, "Perhaps one of you would resolve that issue for us, is Xena an Amazon?" Celesta looked to Artemis, "I think you'd better take this one." That brought the attention of all which caused Artemis to fidget nervously.
Taking a deep breath she answered. "While Xena is unaware of this, she is an Amazon by birthright.. Her mother left her tribe two cycles previously, following the birth of her first child, a son." She sighed, "Queen Gabrielle, while again unaware, is also an Amazon by birth. Both were blessed following the Amazon tradition in my temple. With Gabrielle it ended there, until meeting your patrol the day Princess Terreis was killed. Xena however is a trained shamaness, and was once offered the rank of queen by a tribe far from here. She declined it, feeling herself undeserving of such honor."
The council members were stunned again by these revelations. Finally Eponin let out a long breath, "I guess that answers that question." Similar exclamations were heard around the room. Solari asked the follow up, "From what you've just told us, Xena is of high rank and, were it not for her crimes, would be entitled to great respect. Why then does she deny it?" Artemis replied sadly "It is a long and tragic story. It began about ten winters ago and ended only in the last seasons." She proceeded to tell them of Xena's experiences with Cyane, Alti and the Scythian Amazons. She concluded with Xena's journey in search of Gabrielle's soul.
Finally she said, "It is Xena's ability to recognize, and fight, demons in the spirit world, that makes her a threat to Aries, Dahok and their plans. She fought bravely this last winter to correct evil she had done long ago. Overcome by grief on the night before her arrest, she was in the act of taking her own life, when Aries interfered. He preferred that she be executed by the nation and her name destroyed. He filled her water skin with Lethe, as you finally suspected. He knew under it's influence she would be unable to defend herself, and the whole story would likely never be revealed. When I asked you to keep her alive, it was because I was being blocked from either seeing or interceding on Queen Gabrielle's behalf. I knew that if Xena died I might never get the story, and therefore be unable to help her. Xena has paid a terrible price for her past evil, including and the death of her son, and the loss of her own soul."
Celesta spoke next, "Xena has been played for a pawn by unscrupulous gods and demons. Thru their designs, many have suffered at her hands. Yet she carries the guilt upon her soul. Her efforts at reform and atonement have been great, so great that Aries and others, fearing her redemption, have filed petitions against her soul. Most of Aries petitions have been dismissed by Zeus, and we will continue to work on the others. She will be condemned to Tartarus by this guilt, unless you help her. Her soul is teetering on a knifes edge. Your judgement of her will likely make the difference."She paused for effect. "If you execute Xena now, she will go to Tartarus. If you let her live, and she continues her efforts, she will not. She seeks death to join Queen Gabrielle, whose love for her is so great she is willing to stay in Tartarus to be with her. Such true love and devotion should not go unrewarded. They deserve to be together in the Forests."
Eponin asked, "What would you have us do?" Artemis told them and they agreed, after some discussion on what could, and could not be told. It was almost sunset by the time the meeting broke up. It had been a long day for the council and each had a lot of emotion to sort thru. They would discuss the matter of Xena's fate again in three days. All appeared drawn as they headed for the food hut, where many curious, and soon to be disappointed villagers awaited them.
Inside the hospice, Alicia and Delia were talking to Sophia when Eponin arrived. There had been an unusual number of accidents that day, and two Amazons had died. One was thrown from her horse, nothing too mysterious about that. The other, they told her, was a mystery.
The woman found by the patrol had been the healers assistant, Rhea. Found naked, and beaten almost beyond recognition, she had died without regaining consciousness. Both Delia and Alicia were taking it badly. In addition to being a colleague, the woman had been a friend.
Xena took Eponin to one side and told her what they knew. "I've seen some savage beatings in my life but this tops them all. Whoever did this took their time. They knew what they were doing, wanted her to suffer, but even if we'd found her right afterwards, there was really nothing we could do." Eponin took a deep breath, "I wouldn't have believed Rhea had one enemy in the world. For someone to do this to her, anything that might help us figure out who did it?"
Xena shrugged, observing that robbery wasn't a likely motive. "Her sword and bow were still on her saddle, and there were over two hundred dinars in her saddlebags." Eponin had felt drained when she arrived at the hospice. Her heart sank even lower as Xena continued her report. There was no visible motive. Though found naked, Rhea's body showed none of the usual signs of rape. Despite the beating, there was nothing, not even a bruised knuckle to indicate she'd put up a struggle. Her horse, found grazing nearby, had been used to bring her in on a travois. Had her assailants been thieves, they would have taken something. Xena finished her report, by saying that Sophia had reinforced the patrol, and sent a party to check for anything that might help identify the killers.
Eponin, already exhausted, thanked her for the report, and asked when it had happened, "word came back about midday. We knew you were at the temple and sent a runner, but she came back saying the guards weren't letting anyone in. Orders from Artemis herself, something like that?" Eponin answered carefully, "Artemis called a special meeting of the council, and it lasted all day. I can't say much about it right now." Xena asked quietly, "Anything I need to know?" Eponin looked at her, "Not at the moment. I need to talk with Delia and the others.Then I'd better tell the rest of the council. Sounds like we weren't the only ones having a rough day." Xena asked "Care for some tea, maybe something stronger." Eponin replied "I'd love it, and Xena-" "Yes" "I'm glad they weren't alone when Rhea was brought in." Glancing at the two grief stricken healers Xena shuddered, "so am I."
Xena got the tea while Eponin talked to Delia and Alicia. There wasn't much they could add. Sophia told her there was no news yet from the patrol. She'd arranged a pyre detail for the morning. Eponin thanked her, then added, "make sure they're armed, and keep watch for trouble." Startled Sophia asked, "are we expecting any?" "Hope not, but Rhea wasn't one to be surprised. Whoever killed her may still be out there, and I don't want them getting a free shot at anyone else." Before she left Eponin put a hand on Delia's shoulder, "We'll find who ever did this, and I promise you they'll pay."
Soon after, the council members began arriving. All took their official look at Rhea's body, and expressed condolences to the grieving healers. Krystina arrived with acolytes and a stretcher. "Delia, We'll take care of her if you don't feel up to it." She gratefully accepted the offer. "They'll be sending out a pyre detail in the morning, probably have her funeral the next day." The priestess spoke softly, "We'll take care of her, just let me know if there's anything special you want done." As they hugged, the priestess signaled her acolytes. They worked quickly, but with respect, and soon Rhea left the hospice for the last time.
The search party returned well after sunset with disturbing news. Rhea had been murdered in a clearing to one side of the road. There were signs of only one other person in that clearing, and they had worn Amazon boots. The patrol had marked the boot and step sizes on a pole, and returned it for evidence. No tracks that could not be accounted for led to either the trees or road . Sophia told them to get some rest, and went to give her report to Eponin.
Upon hearing the evidence, Eponin collapsed into a chair with an oath. "They sure those tracks go nowhere? Not to a horse, trees, anything." Sophia replied, "I asked them the same questions. It was at least ten paces to the nearest tree. Closer to thirty to the road, nothing. Enough of Rhea's tracks around so whoever it was didn't wipe their own." Eponin said "Sophia, get someone else to head up the pyre detail. We, the two of us and that patrol, are going back out there tomorrow."
Sophia replied "I'll give the orders." Eponin said quietly "I don't want to get rumors started, but assuming what you're telling me is correct, add to it lack of motive and we've got big problems." Sophia asked "What do you suspect, a god?" Eponin answered "Either that or an Amazon that can fly." She looked up, "I only know of two gods that wear Amazon boots, One's Artemis, but I was with her all day. Only other one would be Velasca." "I thought she was trapped in lava somewhere." "She's loose, but that's got to be kept quiet. The council just found out today." This time it was Sophia who let loose with oaths, "You're right, we got problems."
Eponin closed her eyes, "One problem I've got is exhaustion, and too little time to do too many things. I"ve got another council meeting, likely a long one, in three days. Day after tomorrow will likely be funerals. There are people I need to talk with before the meeting, and now this." Sophia offered a suggestion, "I can look myself tomorrow, it sounds like you've got your hands full already." Eponin sighed, "If the patrol is sure of what they saw, it doesn't make much sense." Sophia commented "Eph, you looked like you'd been dragged thru Tartarus, before you found out about this. My advice, accept the report and get some sleep. Sleep in if you can, then use tomorrow to do whatever needs to be done here. I'll see to the funeral arrangements or whatever."
Eponin thought it over, "Alright, but keep a reinforced patrol in that area, and if there's any sign of trouble wake me. Don't say anything, about our suspicions, or the boot. If it isn't already too late, see if you can keep that patrol from talking about it." Sophia stood up, "I'll do what I can. You're right, we've enough on our hands, without adding panic to it." Eponin began pulling off her boots, "Just do the best you can," Sophia turned to leave "Good night."
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